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College Football Classic Rewind: Spartans Knock Off Michigan in Controversial Finish

Posted on October 11, 2011 by A.J. Foss

When it comes to the football rivalry between the Michigan Wolverines and the Michigan State Spartans, some observers see it as Big Brother vs. Little Brother with the Wolverines cast as the big brother and the Spartans as the little brother.

Heading into their 1990 meeting, Michigan had a confident feeling they were going to their little brother another beat down as the Wolverines entered the game as the #1 team in the country while Michigan State came in with a losing record.

The 1990 season was the first season in 21 years that Michigan did not have legendary head coach Bo Schembechler roaming the sidelines.

Gary Moeller, a Michigan assistant coach for 17 of Schembechler’s 21 years at Michigan, took over as head coach and guided the Wolverines to the #1 ranking despite a 28-24 loss to Notre Dame in the season opener.

Michigan had an offense that featured running back Jon Vaughn, the nation’s leading rusher at with 168 yards per game, sophomore quarterback Elvis Grbac, and a sophomore wide receiver named Desmond Howard, who was starting to make a name for himself in college football.

While the Wolverines came into the game as the top-ranked team in the country, the Spartans entered the game with a 1-2-1 record and were coming off a 12-7 loss to Iowa the week before.

This was the eighth season for Michigan State with head coach George Perles as head coach, who had complied a 46-33-3 record in his first seven seasons and had taken the Spartans to a Rose Bowl victory following a 1987 Big Ten championship season.

However, Perles had a 2-5 record against Michigan and had been held to an average of less than seven points in the previous five meetings against the Wolverines.

Desmond Howard caught eight passes for 140 yards and returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown in a breakout performance agianst Michigan State.

The Wolverines got the ball to start the game and promptly drove down for a touchdown on an 11-play, 66-yard drive that culminated with a 15-yard touchdown pass from Grbac to Derrick Alexander to put Michigan on top 7-0.

The Spartans responded with a touchdown of their own on their opening drive as they drove 76 yards in 11 plays, with the touchdown coming courtesy of quarterback Dan Enos, who scrambled out of the pocket to run into the end zone from eight yards out, to tie the game 7-7 with 4:40 left in the first quarter.

Michigan got the ball back and was able to drive to the Spartans’ 3-yard-line thanks to a 42-yard run by John Vaughn and an 18-yard catch from Howard on the drive.

But three straight runs by Vaughn only gained two yards and the Wolverines were faced with a 4th-and-goal from the 1.

Moeller decided to go for the touchdown and on 4th down, Vaughn got the ball again, but was unable to punch it in as he was stopped by Spartan defensive end Bill Johnson at the goal line to force a turnover on downs.

After the goal line stand by the Spartans, the defenses took over the game as neither team was able to mount another scoring chance for the rest of the first half so the score remained 7-7 at the halftime break.

After forcing a punt from the Spartans on their opening possession of the second half, the Wolverines took over at their own 19-yard-line and once again drove to the Michigan State one-yard-line for a 1st-and-goal when Vaughn fumbled the ball with Michigan State recovering it in the end zone.

However, the officials ruled that blew the whistle before the fumble and ruled that Vaughn was down, even though replays showed otherwise.

The Wolverines took advantage of their fortune on the very next play as Jarrod Bunch punched it in for a 1-yard touchdown to put Michigan back in the lead at 14-7, midway through the third quarter.

Just like they did in the first quarter, the Spartans answered a Michigan touchdown with one of their own as Enos avoided the pressure of Michigan defensive tackle Mike Evans, to find Hyland Hickson in the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown to end a 15-play, 80-yard drive to tie the game again, this time at 14 late in the third quarter.

The score was still tied in the fourth quarter when the Spartans’ Mike Iaquaniello intercepted a Grbac pass that was intended for Alexander to give Michigan State the ball at their own 31-yard-line.

Seven plays later, Hickson broke through the tackles of several Michigan defenders to score from 26 yards out to give the Spartans their first lead of the game at 21-14 with 6:01 to play.

Tico Duckett rushed for 93 of Michigan State's 222 rushing yards and scored what would be the game-winning touchdown.

The lead did not last for long however as Howard returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown for the third tie in the game at 21-21.

Following Howard’s touchdown, the Spartans drove down for the go-ahead touchdown on an eight-play, 70-yard drive, with Tico Duckett running it in from nine yards out to put Michigan State back on top at 28-21 with 1:59 left in the game.

The Wolverines took over at their own 29-yard-line with a chance to preserve their #1 ranking but were immediately faced with a 4th-and-6 from the 33, when Grbac found Howard for an 11-yard gain and a 1st down.

A few plays later, Michigan was faced with another 4th down, this time at the Spartans’ 35-yard-line and needing two yards.

Once again, the Wolverines converted the 4th down as Grbac found Vaughn for a six-yard-gain, who went out of bound at the Michigan State 29 with 22 seconds remaining.

After the 4th down conversion, Grbac found Howard across the middle for a 22-yard reception to give Michigan a 1st-and-goal at the 7-yard-line.

Grbac and the Wolverines hurried up to the line and looked to spike the ball, but Grbac fired a fade for Alexander in the right corner of the end zone.

Alexander turned to make the catch and the Wolverines were now down 28-27 with just six seconds to play.

With no overtime in Division I-A football in 1990, Moeller had a choice to make: kick the extra point and have the game end in a tie or go for the two-point conversion and the win.

Moeller called timeout and brought the Michigan offense to the sideline where he came up with a play for the two-point conversion.

On the two-point play, Grbac lined up behind the center with Alexander to his right and Howard to his left.

Grbac took the snap, dropped back, and lofted a pass for Howard, who was grabbed on the left foot by Michigan State defensive back Eddie Brown, causing him to trip and fall to the ground while the pass was coming toward him.

But Howard was able to get his hands around the ball only to have it knocked loose when he hit the ground for an incompletion.

Howard and the Michigan fans at the “Big House” looked for a penalty flag, but could not find one, only to find a yellow pom-pom on the field.

Replays showed that Brown clearly grabbed Howard’s foot and pass interference should have been called, giving the Wolverines another chance for a two-point conversion, this time from inside the two-yard-line.

Instead, the play held up and the Spartans held a 28-27 lead and were six seconds away from a huge upset.

The infamous two-point conversion play where Howard is interfered by Eddie Brown and can not hang on Grbac's throw.

However, when Vada Murray recovered Michigan’s onside kick at the Michigan State 47-yard-line, the Wolverines had one last chance to pull out a miracle victory.

Grbac took the snap and scrambled to the right side of the field where he launched a pass toward the end zone.

The pass came down at around the 5-yard-line and was tipped around before it was intercepted by Brown to secure the 28-27 upset win for the Spartans.

The win helped propelled the Spartans to finish the 1990 season with an 8-3-1 record and a 17-16 win over USC in the John Hancock Bowl to go along with a share of the Big Ten title and a #16 final ranking in the AP poll

Michigan would also win a share of the Big Ten title and finished the season with a 9-3 record and a #7 ranking as Howard would finish the season with 63 receptions for 1,025 yards and 11 touchdowns.

The following season, Howard would win the Heisman Trophy as he accounted for 1,859 all-purpose yards and 23 touchdowns, including his famous 25-yard touchdown reception against Notre Dame on a 4th-and-1 and “Heisman Pose” after his punt return for a touchdown against Ohio State.

Despite all his achievements at Michigan, Howard is still bitter about the ending of the 1990 game against Michigan State as he told the Detroit Free Press this past July “The guy cheated, and (MSU cornerback Eddie Brown) got away with cheating. It’s a lesson that I hope people understand. It was a play that was allowed that shouldn’t have been allowed.”


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